Magnets to stick stuff to tablets: Yup, there's an Apple patent application for that

Surely there's no 'prior art' for this brilliant innovation, eh?

Apple has filed a sweeping patent application with the US Patent and Trademark Office for a "magnetic attachment mechanism" that allows two electronic components to be attached to one another to "augment the functionality of usefulness" of the primary electronic device.

Examples of devices that could be magnetically attached to an iPad, from Apple's 'Magnetic Attachment Unit' patent application

'Kitchen Sink' is not among the
patent's possible embodiments

That primary electronic device, as described in the examples presented in the 59-page "Magnetic Attachment Unit", is the iPad – although the patent filing itself allows itself some leeway, referring only to "hand held electronic devices and computing platforms along the lines of the iPad™ tablet."

One might at first blush assume that the magnetic attachment of accessories would not be patentable, since one might also assume that prior art surely exists, but Apple's patent lawyers have given it a go in any case. After all, the USPTO is a bit of a black box – pop something into it, and you never really know what will come out the other end.

A patent's Claims are its heart and soul, being the basis for the protection sought by the application, and – if granted – the parts of the document upon which patent lawsuits are based. That being the case, Apple's legal eagles have written up one of the finest example of patentese that this Reg hack has had to wade through during his years of examining such documents.

Here is Claim 1 of United States Patent Application #20140049911, in its entirety – and no, you don't have to read it all; we'll see you again in a few column inches:

A magnetic attachment unit for magnetically attaching together at least individual first electronic and second electronic devices each having an associated magnetic attachment feature, comprising: a body comprising: a first side, a second side opposite the first side, electronic circuitry arranged to at least provide a communication channel between the first and second electronic devices and processing resources, and a data storage unit arranged to store data; a first magnetic attachment system at a first side of the body comprising at least a first magnet arranged to provide a first activation force for activating the corresponding magnetic attachment feature in the first electronic device; and a second magnetic attachment system at a second side of the body comprising at least a second magnet arranged to provide a second activation force for activating the corresponding magnetic attachment feature in the second electronic device, wherein a magnetic attachment force generated between the activated first and second magnetic systems and the corresponding magnets in the magnetic attachment unit causes the first and second individual electronic devices to operate together as a cooperating electronic device.

Got that? If your eyes glazed over after the first comma, or even if you made it all the way to the first semicolon before bailing, here's a layman's summarization: Apple is seeking patent protection for sticking two devices together magnetically and having them communicate with one another.

That communication, additional Claims note, can be done through wireless or wired connections. The magnetic connector can be flexible or rigid, and if rigid it can be equipped with a clutch that can be adjusted to rotate to different angles.

Apple's reasoning behind the filing is straightforward: handheld devices are small, and therefore building accessory-attachment systems onto them is a problem. Additionally – this is Apple, after all – the filing notes that "The presence of the external attaching feature can detract from the overall look and feel of the handheld computing device as well as add unwanted weight and complexity as well as degrade the appearance of the hand held computing device."

This magnetic link-up is accomplished by building a series of strong magnets – rare-earth magnets should do the trick – into the cases of the handheld device and the accessory. When the two pieces are brought close to one another, they'll snap together securely and precisely aligned.

A simple idea, to be sure, but that simplicity didn't slow Apple's idea men and women in their efforts to think up a plethora of "embodiments" in which to employ the magnetic connector – everything from external memory modules for expanded storage to game controllers to automotive dashboard and headrest mounts to hooks and suction cups for hanging or wall mounting to credit card–swiping slots to ... well, you get the idea.

In addition to the two devices – iPad and accessory, for example – being able to communicate either directly or wirelessly, the filing envisions them being able to communicate magnetically as well. The trick here is to electrically isolate the magnets from the case's ground circuit, then build a sensing circuit that can recognize when two magnets are aligned with one another.

That magnet-recognition system could pass information about the accessory's type to the iPad by simply varying the number and placement of the magnets on the accessory. For example, if a row of magnet positions on the accessory varied à la "magnet, no-magnet, magnet, magnet, no-magnet, magnet," that could transmit a simple binary 101101 to the host device, and 101101 could be known to the host to be the binary code for, say, "game controller."

Alternatively, the game controller could simply signify its presence through an electrical signal passed through a garden-variety port, but what's the fun in that? In a patent application filing, the more embodiments, the merrier.

The filing continues on in this "More Fun with Embodiments" mode by suggesting that magnets could be configured so that an application of an alternating current could temporarily demagnetize them – or, for that matter, the magnets could be electromagnets from the get-go, and so would only be magnetized when current was applied.

This means that hands-free detachment of an accessory could be achieved by simply applying a suitable current – press or click a button, and your keyboard is released, no muss no fuss. If an alternating current is required for magnetization, the opposite would be true – damn the battery life, full speed ahead.

Patent Application #20140049911 isn't Apple's first foray into magnets, of course. For example, Cook & Co. currently offer an iPad Smart Cover which connects and aligns itself via magnets, and both the Smart Cover and iPad Smart Case put Cupertinian fondleslabs to sleep and awaken them by means of magnetic control.

Also, Apple patent-watchers may remember the Unibody Magnet patent application published last July, which envisioned using magnets to attach iDevices to "a number of different surfaces, including for example, refrigerators, metallic armbands, or even a wall mounted docking station."

iPad-equipped treadmills and iPad refrigerator magnets? As Apple marketing headman Phil Schiller famously said when introducing the Mac-in-a-can Mac Pro, "Can't innovate anymore, my ass." ®

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